The Five Kinds of Prayer (3): Penance

sideAltarsIcons1Much of what is written about penitential prayer is centered on personal, individual sin. However, our tendency to desire according to the desires of others suggests that a more interdividual model is needed in our approach to penance. To begin with, sin is never personal in an individual way. Our own participation in sinfulness is intertwined with the sinfulness of others. As with petitionary and intercessory prayer, penitential prayer, confessions of our sins to God, is an important way of becoming aware of our own desires in their interactions with others and what we are doing with them. The old list of seven capital sins from traditional Catholic teaching is a handy structure for a brief look at how to confess these sins in the light of our participation in mimetic desire.

Lust and Gluttony are the sins most grounded in the physiological structure of each person. There is a physical craving involved with these sins, but our physical urges in these areas are pulled by the advertising media and cultural factors where we want a particular kind of sexual mate or food or drink because they are presented as more desirable than various alternatives. In my first post on Respect, I noted the rivalry that surrounds what often passes for love in human relationships. Gluttony is not subject to rivalry in the same way but some people seem to make a point of consuming more than others as a way feel that they are “winners” in the game of life.

Both lust and gluttony are subject to bodily addictions that are easily exacerbated by mimetic rivalry. The exasperation of people who live with addicted persons often amounts to a contest of wills. This is perhaps where the term enabler is most applicable. That is, the enabler adds to the tension caused by the addictive behavior so that the addict feels that he or she “loses” by giving up the addiction and being healed. In fact, many enablers fail to cope with healed addicts. Family systems thought illustrates the systemic elements of addictive behavior and it reaches for the jugular of the social system, not the individual who is addicted.

Envy and avarice are the most mimetic of the capital sins. Envy, of course, is pure mimetic desire, wanting what somebody else has and usually preferring to destroy what the other has if the envious one cannot get it. Avarice is envy in advance, or peremptory envy. An avaricious person wants what others want and tries to get it before anybody else can. Such a one, for that matter, often tries to anticipate what others will want, make that thing desirable, and then grab before anybody else can.

Sloth is a sin that can be committed with little or no reference to anybody else except that the failure to perform deeds others need or would appreciate affects them. The Latin word is accidie and it means a lot more than laziness, although it includes it. Accidie is primarily a lack of seeking the good; staying in the dumps rather than make an effort for the good, especially for the things of God. One way we are afflicted by sloth is by not noting how the desires of others are affecting us. When we do that, the default is that we just float along on others’ desires without taking any responsibility for our lives.

Anger is the opposite of sloth insofar as it is energetic while sloth is lethargic. While Sloth is uncritically floating with the social mimetic process, whatever it is, anger is an equally uncritical participation in mimetic movement but one that is overcome by the contagion of the crowd’s collective anger. Anger, of course, is the fuel for mimetic rivalry and most particularly for the desire for revenge. The more revenge is fueled by anger, the less examination as to the appropriateness of revenge. We tend to think of anger as personal because we feel it physiologically in our bodies but anger is always relational, even if it is in relationship with oneself. Because of the involvement of body chemistry in anger, it poses the danger of falling into a substance addiction.

Pride and his cousin vainglory have already been examined at length in the posts on humility. In examining ourselves in confessionary prayer we need to be especially alert to pride that begins with tempting us to claim our anger, our possessiveness, our lust as our own, something to fight for as much as the people and things we think we want. In all mimetic rivalry, there is a strong dose of pride.

Above all, we need to remember in our hearts the Gospel’s revelation of the truth of sacred collective violence. As the culture of lynching in the US reminds us, collective violence can easily slip into a cultural matter—the way we have always done it—therefore an eternal “truth” when the real truth is that it is the old lie of the devil who has been a liar and a murderer from the beginning.

The sacrament of confession is well-known as a therapeutic exercise, one that lifts a heavy burden from us. Even for those who do not believe in penance as a sacrament find it important to confess their sins to another to get them off one’s chest.

The mimetic dimension of our sinfulness also impresses upon us the necessity of turning to the Other who is outside the system of the mimetic process that constitutes the principalities and powers to gain an alternative to them. The story of Peter walking on water—or trying to—illustrates this turning. The wind and the choppy waves represent our being overwhelmed by the mimetic movements that tend toward rage and persecution. When Peter looked at the waves instead of at Jesus, he started to sink. By himself, he would have sunk and drowned. By looking again at Jesus, he was pulled into the boat and taken safely to shore.

Continue to part 4: Thanksgiving


Vainglory – Enslavement to the Admiration of Others

garden1Although pride is usually posited as the opposite of humility, the early eastern monastics distinguished vainglory from pride. (Some translations use “boasting” or conceit.”) It is not always easy to see the distinction between the two but vainglory tends to be seeking glory from humans while pride is more directly related to our relationship with God; thinking, or acting as if we don’t need God. In terms of mimetic theory, vainglory is seeking to stir up the desire of other people for our own actions. Vainglory is acting like the hypocrites who make a public display of almsgiving “that they may be praised by others” (Mt. 6:2) or of their fasting for the same reason. Jesus says they have “received their reward,” which presumably is to be praised by other people. John Cassian says that vainglory “has many styles, forms, and “variations” as it can strike at everything we do since every action or even every inaction can be motivated by vainglory. (John Cassian, Monastic Institutes, p. 163)

This is a tough one because it is difficult not to want to be admired. Moreover, although it is vainglorious to want people to acclaim books we write or our other accomplishments, there is no sense and no edification in writing badly or doing bad work. When Benedict says that readers in church or at table should read well enough to edify the hearers, or that the guest quarters should be well prepared for visitors, he makes it clear that we should try to do every task assigned to us well, whether it is writing a book or vacuuming the hallway.

Some of the desert monastics were ruthless with themselves in their attempts to stifle vainglory. This was difficult because they were admired by many people who heard about their lifestyles. When a group of admirers came to see Abba Moses, they asked a monastic where he could be found. The monk told them to go away because Abba Moses was a fool and not worth seeing. They turned away, only to find out from some other monastics that it was Abba Moses himself who had driven them away. Some people take this reverse strategy to the extreme by assuming that if “men revile us and persecute us and utter all kinds of evil against us falsely on Jesus’ account than we are blessed. Maybe, but in a talk I heard Gil Bailie give, he said that we aren’t blessed if people revile us for being a clod. The problem is that we are still preoccupied with the opinions of others.

Jesus gives us a clue when he follows his admonition not to trumpet our almsgiving and other good deeds by adding: “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret” (Mt. 6:3-4). In his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount in Cost of Discipleship Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes the tension with the admonition: “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your father who is in heaven” (Mt. 5:17) Bonhoeffer suggests that the trick is to hide our good works from ourselves. To do this, we must hide any admiration we get from them as well.

As John Cassian has pointed out, we can be haunted by vainglory when we write a book or vacuum the hallway or do anything else. The best we can do is concentrate not on ourselves or the admiration of others but upon the work itself. As an act of charity, we should try to write a good book that is helpful to others and vacuum the hallway to make the house nicer for those who live there. Benedict has the table reader pray the verse “Lord open my lips” before reading for the week to drive away pride (RB 38:3). Again he wants to reader to concentrate on reading well and not on how well one is reading. Perhaps the best advice Benedict has to offer is: “Do not aspire to be called holy before you really are, but first be holy that you may more truly be called so” (RB 4: 62).